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Current law ill-supports responsible alcohol use

Responsible drinking can be difficult to learn, and current laws add a difficulty-boosting twist: You get to learn on your own.

A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times reports that Hillsborough County sheriff’s officials intend to crack down on underage drinking by targeting parents who host parties for underage drinkers. Such parents could face up to 60 days in jail and a fine for their offense. Supporters of such a crackdown criticize these parents for irresponsibility, but miss a telling point: If parents weren’t supervising these parties, who would be?

This situation exposes an inherent flaw in the current legal drinking age being set at 21. Many 21-year-olds have long since left home. Therefore, their first drinking experience – assuming they’ve obeyed the law to that point – typically takes place not in a learning environment with the guidance of parents or mentors, but in a wild, party atmosphere among other young drinkers. Thus, under the current law, responsible drinking behaviors are to be learned in what is essentially a “blind leading the blind” scenario.

Resolving this difficulty is a central concern of John M. McCardell Jr., former president of Middlebury College. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he said: “Legal-age 21 creates a situation in which the risks are increased and the ability of any of us to manage those risks is put in jeopardy.”

McCardell is the founder of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit group seeking to change drinking-age laws. The group’s primary proposal is the issuing of “drinking licenses” to 18- to 20-year-olds who finish an alcohol-education program.

Implementation of this proposal would accomplish two important goals. First, it would grant 18-year-olds the responsibility they already supposedly attain upon reaching that age by being granted the right to serve in the military, to vote and to be tried as an adult in a court of law. Second, and most importantly, it would provide them with the education that many never receive – at least until they violate DUI laws, for instance – as well as the opportunity to have their first drinking experiences in an environment that promotes safety, not debauchery.

Regardless of whether this proposal is the one to break down the legal-age-21 barrier, one thing is certain: The family dinner table is a better place to learn responsible drinking habits than downtown Ybor.